Zula Swanson: Savvy Businesswoman
September 11, 2020
Zula Swanson (1891–1973) was a savvy businesswoman, born on a cotton plantation in Jackson Gap, Alabama in 1891. In 1918, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she worked as a dressmaker, and where she married shortly after arriving. The marriage did not last, and, with limited financial resources, Zula became a sex worker and managed to amass a large savings. In 1929 she relocated to Anchorage to escape charges of bootlegging and drunk driving.
Zula realized the financial opportunities of her profession in Anchorage and purchased property downtown, which she turned into a brothel disguised as a boardinghouse. She also owned the Rendezvous Hotel, which served as a meeting place for new arrivals seeking housing and job opportunities.
Zula continued to prosper in Anchorage, purchasing commercial and residential lots throughout the 1940s and 1950s, quickly becoming one of the largest landowners in the state. In 1962, she sold land on what is now 5th Avenue to JCPenney for an estimated $250,000––equal to roughly $2.1 million today.
While growing her business empire, Zula maintained an active role in civic life in Anchorage. She was one of the founding members of the Anchorage chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1951 (alongside #ExtraToughWomenAK post alum Blanche McSmith), and was a member of various community clubs, including the Daughters of the Elks. Zula passed in 1973, at the age of 82.
Did you know Zula Swanson or have a story you’d like to share about her? Share your images and stories with us on Instagram and Facebook by tagging us (@anchoragemuseum and #ExtraToughWomenAK) and we’ll add them to our ongoing digital curation project. Stay tuned for more information about the upcoming exhibition and be sure to check back for new #ExtraToughWomenAK posts.
Image Credit: Zula Swanson Photographs, Anchorage Museum, B1977.104.1